When considering Basque cuisine in general terms, it’s important to take into account the geography of this area spanning both Spain and France, with coastal and valley areas punctuated by the mountainous topography of the Basque Mountains, which connect the Pyrennees in the east to the Cantabrian Mountains in the west.
Predictably, the cuisine around the coastline along the Cantabrian Sea - like San Sebastian/Donostia - is largely influenced by the abundance of seafood, while further inland, fresh and cured meats, freshwater fish and salt cod and legumes are more prevalent.
The Basque people have always been hugely passionate about their food and gastronomic societies have been a fixture of this region since the late 19th century. Male-dominated, these small fraternities would gather in a communal txoko, where they could prepare and eat meals together, a break from the usual matriarchal order. The first one was established in San Sebastian in 1870, and they are still popular today, with women now gradually being allowed to join in the fun too.
While there are countless traditional dishes that are time-honoured and still cherished today, San Sebastian is world-famous for its “nueva cocina vasca” (new Basque cuisine), which puts a daring and creative spin on the region’s seasonal ingredients and ancient recipes. Juan Mari Arzak is largely considered the godfather of this exciting culinary trend, with such preeminent followers as Martin Berasategui, Akelarre’s Pedro Subijana y Félix Etxabe, and even El Bulli’s Ferran Adria.
TYPICAL DISHES TO LOOK OUT FOR
Generally, bars open from 10am-3pm and then again from 6-11pm, and most dishes/bites range from $2-5 a piece.
Eating is typically done standing up at the bar, though some places also have tables. Generally, you load up the displayed cold items onto the plates provided and then order hot items from the bartender; at the end, the bill is tallied through a combination of the honour system and detritus like toothpicks.
Between bites, wash it all down with the local Txacoli wine (slightly fizzy, dry, usually white) or sidra, a tart locally-brewed cider.
BACALAO AL PIL-PIL (Salt Cod in Garlic Sauce)
An acquired texture for many, this iconic Basque dish consists of desalted salt cod in a mayonnaise-style olive oil emulsion. Pil-pil is supposedly onomotopaeic Basque for “bubbling”.
Briefly, salt cod pieces with the skin left on are thoroughly soaked to remove the saltiness, patted dry, then simmered in garlic and chile-infused olive oil in a cazuela (clay pot or casserole) until cooked enough to be easily deboned. The cod and olive oil are removed from the cazuela and both set aside and kept lukewarm. Then the magic begins: the cod is put back into the cazuela, skin-side up, and then a few spoonfuls of the reserved oil is poured top of the cod. The cazuela is then rotated in circular motions over the burner until an emulsion begins to form - the rest of the reserved oil is gradually poured on top, while the cazuela is consistently being rotated, until the entire sauce becomes an opaque emulsification. The entire process can take up to 30 minutes, depending on the quality and gelatin content of the cod’s skin.*
(An in-depth recipe with step-by-step photos can be found at: www.plateruena.com.)
MARMITAKO (Tuna Stew with Peppers and Potatoes)
From the Basque word “marmita” ( “pot” or “casserole”), this hearty traditional fisherman’s stew is made with tuna and potatoes. Nowadays, salmon or even duck is sometimes used.
MERLUZA EN SALSA VERDE (Hake in Green Sauce)
Basque for hake: Lebatza
Another cazuela-bound dish, it consists of thickly-cut hake pieces simmered in a greenish-hued white wine and parsley sauce (delicious). Clams and white asparagus are often added, and other less expensive fish are sometimes used, such as rape (monkfish) or FRESH cod.
ANGULAS (Baby eels, or “elvers”)
A true delicacy, priced as high as $200/pound, we had these tender, sweet creatures stuffed into baby red peppers (pictured to the right) at one of the bars along our txikiteo. The season runs from October through February, outside of which, and though frowned upon by the locals, frozen ones are sometimes used (most likely what we had when we were there in mid March).
The most traditional preparation - a la Bilbaina - is short and sweet, as described here by Basque cuisine expert Penelope Casas in a NY Times article as posted on Buber’s Basque Page:
“Olive oil is heated with sliced garlic and a piece of dried red chilly pepper in an individual earthenware casserole until the garlic turns golden. Without a moment's delay the angulas are plunged into the oil and the dish immediately removed from the heat. It is covered with a plate and brought sizzling to the table. Restaurants provide special angulas forks made of wood to avoid the metallic tasted of conventional forks and get a better grip on the smooth-skinned angulas.”
To read more about these mysterious creatures and the painstaking harvest, check out the rest of the article at http://www.buber.net/Basque/Food/food1.html.
TXIPIRONES EN SU TINTA (Baby Squid In Their Ink)
Spanish: Chipirones en su tinta
Another acquired taste/texture, txipirones (baby squid) are cooked in their own ink. We had a modern take on this at Martin Berasategui - a squid ink ravioli - and found it to be quite galling: the insipid fishy flavour followed by an unappetizing blackened tongue.
Luckily, baby squid crops up in many different, I think, tastier forms, like plainly grilled, stuffed, or fried with caramelized onions.
A Basque speciality, this firm, unpasteurized sheeps milk cheese (made from the Lacha and Carranzana ewes) is traditionally hung and aged for up to a year in wood chimneys, giving it the distinctive smokey flavour. A final light smoking over beech and hawthorn wood before export lends the characteristic deep orange rind.**
“A LA PLANCHA” (“ON THE GRILL”)
A very popular way of eating throughout Spain and particularly here, is anything cooked “on the grill”, which can either be coal- or wood-fired. Popular dishes include “chuleta”, “lenguado” (Dover sole) and even “almejas” (clams).
AND TO DRINK...
Along the coast, in places like San Sebastian, more often than not you’ll be served the lightly sparkling white variety, as it matches perfectly with seafood. Produced in the Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa regions, the reds are made from Ondarribi Beltza grapes, the whites from Ondarribi Zuri grapes.
Rioja Alavesa, one of the three sub-regions of the greater Rioja wine growing region, is located in the Basque region of Alva. The wines from this area are considered to be typically lighter and fruitier than wines from the other two Rioja regions.
Sagardoa (Spanish: Sidra)
Whether you like cider or not, it’s worth stopping into a sidaria just to witness the bartenders dramatically pouring the cider from a large bottle into a small glass from a great height (at least 3 feet apart). Called “escanciar”, this method of long pouring is said to bring out the flavours of the tart, fizzy liquid. With an agreeable climate to apple-growing (mild wet summers followed by mild winters), the northern regions of Spain, such as Asturias and Basque Country, are known for the production of “hard cider” - February and March are the months to sample the cider straight from the cask, before the cider is bottled in April.
Located outside San Sebastian in Astigarraga, Oyarbide cider house won the 2009 Basque Cider Awards.
A great resource for authentic Spanish recipes.
Buber’s Basque page has all sorts of interesting info on the region, its people, and its food.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS WITH SPANISH AND BASQUE
In Spanish: San Sebastián is the capital city of the Guipúzcoa region of País Vasco (Basque Country).
In Basque: Donostia is the capital city of the Gipuzkoa (the official name) region of Euskadi.
What to Eat: San Sebastian
Typical pinxtos bar spread with hams hanging above
Meluza en salsa verde (hake in green sauce)
Peppers stuffed with angulas (baby eels)
Dover sole a la plancha
Almejas Guisadas (Basque-style steamed clams)